Urban Sessions – This Year’s Feel Good Hit of the Summer

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It was one of those blistering, unbeatable weekends of sun. Weather that we can expect to continue for a while. Weather that demands you search for a beer. Not just any beer. Only the best will do.

What do you do?

Get out to Hackney Wick. Take a cool Overground train (when it bothers to show up) out east and emerge onto the baking hot platform like you’ve just landed in Spain. Wander up a road for five minutes. Spy a sinister, 1930’s public baths bleached pale grey by the sun. Beer Here, says a sign. Dive in.

This is Urban Sessions. It’s a project that has transformed what is for all intents and purposes a community centre into a circus of beer, music, people and fun. Wandering, sunblind, into a suddenly dark space, I find myself tripping down stairs and emerging into a school-gym-sized space ringed with taps, kegs and casks. Scaffolding, bits of amusement park rides and Captain Pugwash adorn the few spaces not taken up with beer. Chalkboards proclaim magic words, booze and brewery names. Then, just like magic, some nice man appears and guides you to glass of cold beer: Magic Rock Simpleton, the 2.6% abv solution to a problem I only just realised I had.

A few gulps of this zesty, lightweight yet full-flavoured elixir and I can see properly again. ‘Oh look,’ I think, peering to one side of the room. ‘Belgium. And over there, the USA. And, Italy?’ This is no by-the-book selection of beers on offer, and rightly so, given that Melissa Cole is Urban Sessions ‘Benevolent Beer Dictator’. A constantly changing selection of 500 beverages will grace the bars at Urban Sessions over its three-month residency, with rotating range of 60 beers available at any one time. Over the summer, there will be live brewing sessions, meet the brewer events, live gigs and more. Considering this was the soft launch (plenty was still being constructed, but the majestic frame and skeleton of this wonderful beast was quite clearly in place), there was still an Untappd-busting range of beers on tap.

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Highlights included Flying Dog’s 4.2% and perfectly titled Easy IPA, Birra Toccalmatto’s super fresh and super juicy Re Hop pale ale, Weird Beard & Elusive’s Nelson Sauvin Saison, and Magic Rock’s new, pink grapefruit version of Salty Kiss, which is an absolute showstopper: sweet, sour, crisp, bitter, but grapefruit through and through. A summer blockbuster that demands another performance. But there’s tonnes more beer to try, and excellent staff to introduce you to them all. Credit must go to Melissa for getting these recruits whipped into shape. Everyone I spoke to was bright, knowledgeable, friendly and falling over themselves to get me tasters of anything.

If the indoor space impresses you, you’ll be blown away by the enormous outdoor area. Fields of seating, sand from all of your best holiday memories and soon, lots of belly-filling street food slingers to keep that beer company. As it was, there were some great people to drink with, names from Twitter that I’ve finally put handshakes to, and the happy, tipsy chatter of a group of people having a week’s worth of great beer and sunshine in one afternoon. A personal highlight was Norwich’s own Nate Southwood demanding that Stone ‘brew some shorts’. Every man can dream.

Urban Sessions is not just another place where there’s beer, food, music and people. Even in its incomplete state, Urban Sessions felt like something made with love, like the kind of place we all talk about opening in our rose-tinted bar-opening fantasies. Beer of all kinds to satisfy anyone, and if that isn’t enough, loads of high quality cider, spirits and cocktails too. Urban Sessions launches properly on Thursday 11th July, and from what I’ve seen, it’s set to take to be the most talked-about beer event in London this summer. I’ll see you there.

Craft Beer Rising at Whole Foods Market

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The traditional Beer Festival Season is now well and truly upon us. Part of the trend of new ‘craft beer’ oriented events is their desire to do things differently, and be in different places than other beer festivals. The term ‘pop-up’ is often bandied about liberally, when people really mean ‘tent’ or ‘stall’. With respect to Craft Beer Rising, setting up a small pub in the window of Whole Foods in High Street Ken is more than just a stall. From the 7th to the 16th of June, this is exactly what they did. Again, they managed to get all the right people involved. Brewers as different at Harbour, Otley, Beavertown and Hogsback all had their beers stocked in the pop-up pub, with their beers matched to foods from the Whole Foods market at events from Monday to Friday last week. Each night, the brewers themselves would guide paying customers (at £20 a ticket) through six of their beers and foods matched to them by either Melissa Cole or Ben McFarland.

On Wednesday, I attended the evening hosted by Otley Brewing Co, a favourite Welsh brewer of mine who consistently turn out innovative, flavoursome but impressively balanced beers. Melissa Cole (who has brewed a collaboration beer with Otley, in the form of Thai-Bo) had made the beer and food matches, and talked the attendees (some of whom were in the industry, others enthusiasts, or complete novices) through the basics of beer, brewing and food matching. Nick and Lee from Otley were there to talk about the process of making each beer, and the whole event had a very intimate and friendly atmosphere, partly due to the slightly cramped confines of a pop-up pub (see photos).

We were greeted warmly on arrival and handed a glass of Croeso (O2), Otley’s US-hopped golden ale, fresh from the cask. It’s a deeply aromatic beer for its modest strength (4.2%), and was the winner in the Champion Beer of Wales/Golden Ales category last year. The tropical fruit nose converts neatly onto the palate, and makes for an extremely moreish beer, leagues ahead of other far blander golden ales. Whilst this wasn’t paired with anything per say, there was some crunchy, spicy corn on the tables to go with it. A bar snack basic, but still pleasant enough.

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Lined up on the (slightly wobbly) tables were several bottles of five other Otley beers. As we took our seats on cushion-topped metal casks, we were introduced to Nick and Lee, and Melissa introduced the beers one by one with each food accompaniment. First was O1, Otley’s original golden bitter. It was paired with some puff pastry cheese twists: a simple but extremely effective combination. O1 has a surprisingly zesty, lemon-and-orange-pith character to its straightforward sweet-then-bitter profile, which paired very nicely with the pastry to become liquid bread. The cheese was lifted neatly right off the palate, but its flavour remained. Classic and simple.

Next came O9 (formerly known as O-Garden, but has had its name changed after a polite request from you-know-who), which was just as sharp,  citrusy and spicy with cloves as I remember. This was paired with some fish and chips with tartar sauce. Aside from the expected batter-melting quality of the carbonation and clean, fruity finish to every bite, the O9 went quite splendidly with the tartar sauce, with its lemon tartness and spicy clove character adding new depths to the sauce.

Afterwards we had Oxymoron (O10), Otley’s rather aptly-named black IPA. Most black IPAs I’ve tasted are in the 6-7%, but Oxymoron is only 5.5%. However, it was Oxymoron that really hit home to me what Otley’s real strength is as a brewer: balance. All that roast, syrup, citrus and dryness is blended into what I can only describe as a sessionable and extremely balanced palate. If there was ever an accessible black IPA to introduce beer newbies to the style, this is it. Oxymoron was served with a selection of breads, charcuterie and small gherkins. Naturally, it work very nicely, cutting through oily and salty meat and adding smoky sweetness, binding with the bread and sweetening the gherkins.

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The penultimate beer of the night is my favourite Otley beer: their O6 Porter. The bottled version of the beer is not quite as good as it is on cask, but it’s still a rich, chocolatey, espresso-powered beast that, for its 6.6% abv, remains gulpable. This came with some mini-brownies topped with salted caramel. Naturally this enhanced the flavours in both things, but I might have preferred to see the O6 with a rich meat course to see how it faired.

Finally, we tasted Motley Brew, a 7.5% double IPA brewed in collaboration with Glyn Roberts aka Rabid Barfly. Again, for all its intense flavour and high strength, it’s a remarkably balanced beer that never overpowers any section of your palate. You never get bored of its assertive tropical fruit sweetness or dry, piney finish. You just keep enjoying it, over and over again. This was served with some delightfully named Ticklemore cheese and chilli focaccia bread. The cheese was mostly dry and chalky in the middle, but the beer made it sweeter, creamier and saltier, like injecting it with a super-soldier serum. It also went marvellously with the chilli bread, allowing the heat to tingle the taste buds before sweetening the bread and cleansing the palate.

It was a great night, and I’ve heard positive things about the other brewer evenings. Melissa did a great job of concisely conveying lots of information about the beers, brewing, food and anecdotes to an audience of mixed levels of knowledge, and both her and the Otley team fielded plenty of questions. My only criticism would be the size of the venue. Whilst it looked fantastic from the outside (if the glaring, jealous looks of passers by were anything to go by), it was just slightly too cramped and noisy inside. Having said that, it was a well-organised and fun evening of great beer and good food. I can’t really ask for much more than that.

"It’s all just a bit of harmless fun."

Melissa Cole wrote a great blog (an open letter, really) a week ago about the use of this sort of thing:
(Images courtesy of the excellent watchdog for dodgy beer marketing Pumpclip Parade)

As this is a real pet hate of mine, I have to add my own feelings on this matter, not a ‘male perspective’ exactly, but hopefully one that is shared by other men.

When I see a one of these beers on the bar, I get angry and embarrassed in equal amounts. I get angry because this is exactly why some people think cask beer is for sad old men. I get embarrassed because, even if I order a completely different ale from the bar, people will think ‘Ah, this chap obviously shares the same sense of humour as the sad, dirty old man that designed the label for that other beer. That’s what cask ale drinkers are like.’
However, when people use the phrase “it’s all just a bit harmless fun”, I don’t get embarrassed. I just get angry. For the sake of argument (and my spleen), let’s put that sentence under the microscope, shall we?
“It’s all just a bit of harmless fun.”
First, it isn’t all just a bit of harmless fun, because not all breweries see fit to market their beer in this way. And amongst those that do, not all of them use the kind of bawdy, seaside-postcard-from-a-time-land-forgot type of humour that we are apparently supposed to celebrate and cherish as part of our innate, cultural backwardness. Some of them, see above, are terrifying glimpses into the psyches of deranged and possibly quite dangerous individuals. The man who drew that Randy Otter one should be sectioned.
Secondly, it isn’t all just a bit of harmless fun, because it extends beyond the pump clips to the grubby, pathetic, middle-aged-boys that think this is ‘funny’, or worse still, sexually arousing. It simply exacerbates a tired old stereotype of a man going to the pub to ‘get away’ from his wife, drink beer, and stare at crudely-drawn pictures of women, otters, figures from folklore, whatever floats their boat.
Thirdly, it is not harmless, because it harms my eyes, my intelligence, and the idea of being ‘a good lad’ or ‘nice bloke’ or ‘gentleman’ that is instilled in most men by their fathers from a young age. If people want to look at pornographic images, that is absolutely fine. If people want to make silly names for things, be my guest. If people want to degrade themselves, the pub, and the beer they are drinking by needing to buy an ale called ‘Top Totty’ and leering at a child’s drawing of a woman in her underwear, they can FFFFUUU-ind themselves somewhere else to do so.
Finally, it is not fun, or at least any kind of measure of fun that I am aware of. This boils down to – and I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, but it really does seem to be the core issue here – people enjoying looking at crappy, cartoon images of ‘rude things’. If pubs aren’t permitted to sell alcohol to those under the age of 18, they may wish to consider extending this to those whose mental age is below 18 as well.
Let’s all just move on, and embrace the British beer renaissance. Every day people are trying out cask ale and craft beer, and the last thing we want is for someone to think that the guy who designed ‘Rodger the Goblin’ represents the bulk of people who enjoy good beer. 
What really gets to me is how stupid it is, and how it must drive away so many people from trying what may possibly be a good beer. Cynical as I am, I simply assume they are trying to sell off a bad batch of bitter by putting ‘a bit of blue’ on the pump clip. However, I’ve heard that some of these beers are all right. This is even more depressing, because it means they have been effectively reserved for those with the sense of humour of some kind of fist-testicle hybrid.
I am not saying BAN THIS FILTH because, frankly, we shouldn’t need to ban it, should we? We should simply be capable of rising above it. We’re British for heaven’s sake. We should be capable of a bit of class.